Ecletic Rant: Facebook and Privacy

By Ralph E. Stone
Monday January 03, 2011 - 05:33:00 PM

I am not here to bash Facebook. (Did I hear Mark Zuckerberg’s sigh of relief?) However, I do want to sound a note of caution to present and future Facebook users. 

I have a Facebook account. I only include publicly available information such as, for example, my Daily Planet articles. Even if I had dirty laundry, I wouldn't air it on Facebook, nor would I disclose intimate details of my life. I am always surprised, however, what some of my "friends" disclose on Facebook. 

"Facebook's mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." Now this sounds like a worthy mission. But know what you are signing up for when you join Facebook by reading its “terms” and “privacy,” which can be found at the bottom of the Facebook page

A little background on Facebook: Zuckerberg is the founder, CEO, and 24 percent owner of Facebook, a privately-held company headquartered in Palo Alto, California. Facebook has almost 600 million users, nearly a twelfth of the world’s population. In a single day about one billion pieces of content are posted on Facebook. 

Nearly half of Americans are on Facebook, but 70 percent of Facebook users live outside the United States. Facebook is operative in 75 languages. 

Facebook's 2010 revenues are expected to reach $2 billion, which puts it on par with Google and ahead of Yahoo. It has just started to reach its earning potential; it has an estimated present value of $55 billion but could reach $200 billion by 2015. 

Generally companies are free to compile and sell personal information, once that information becomes public. Experts in the field of Internet privacy generally agree that Internet privacy does not really exist. Privacy advocates believe that it should exist. For example, the Federal Trade Commission convened a series of public roundtable discussions about the issue of online privacy, which will result in a staff report

The following websites are informative on the subject of internet privacy. <> <

Should Facebook users be worried about personal privacy? Consider that early this year, Facebook announced that it was changing its privacy settings in order to make more user information public. This announcement caused an uproar in the media and the public. Facebook was urged to increase transparency about how user information is shared with third parties and encouraged to install more robust protections for this sharing. 

Facebook’s announcement is in accord with Zuckerberg’s view of privacy

“That privacy was no longer a social norm. The rise of social networking online means that people no longer have an expectation of privacy. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time." 

I suspect many Facebook users would agree with Zuckerberg’s view of privacy. 

Let's consider some of the things you agree to when you join Facebook. Even after you remove information from your profile or delete your account, copies of that information may remain viewable elsewhere if it has been shared with others, was distributed under your privacy settings, or was copied or stored by other users. And Facebook has the right to retain certain information to prevent identity theft and other misconduct even if you requested deletion. 

Remember also,that subject to your privacy and application settings, you give Facebook a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use anything that you put on Facebook. This right ends when you delete your content or unless, of course, your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it. Make sure to check your privacy and application settings. 

Advertising is Facebook's major source of income. It has an advantage that advertisers cannot resist. Facebook can target consumers better than most others because it knows so much about you, such as where you live, your age, marital status, education level, what you are interested in, and so forth. How? Because you told Facebook about yourself and you gave it permission to use your information to target you for the delivery of advertisements. And Facebook may gather information on whether you acted on the advertisements. Thus, a profile of your buying habits can be developed. As Zuckerberg put it in a recent blog post, "to try to help people share information with their friends about things they do on the web.". 

Facebook has attracted big name advertisers including Coca-Cola, Adidas, JP Morgan, Blockbuster, Verizon, Sony Pictures and Condé Nast. As Carol Kruse, vice president, global interactive marketing, the Coca-Cola Company, put it, "With Facebook Ads, our brands can become a part of the way users communicate and interact on Facebook." 

You can use your privacy settings to limit how your name and profile picture will be used for commercial purposes. 

Facebook warns users that it may disclose information if it has a "good faith" belief that the release is required by law. This includes sharing information with other companies, lawyers, courts or other government entities. What is "good faith?" There does not appear to be any Facebook requirement to notify its users when it releases personal information. Can we be sure that government agencies --CIA, FBI, Homeland Security -- aren't mining this data? Do you care? 

Facebook is here to stay. I would caution you to carefully read Facebook's "terms" and "privacy policy" to make sure you know what you are agreeing to before signing up. You are bound by the provisions whether you read them or not. I would also recommend every user carefully check their privacy settings. Finally, before posting information on a social network like Facebook, just assume that the whole world may get access to this information. When you "let it all hang out," the information may come back to bite you when you, for example, interview for employment., apply for a loan, seek a security clearance, etc. 

For background information on Mark Zuckerberg and the inner workings of Facebook, I recommend Time magazine's Person of the Year: Mark Zuckerberg issue (Dec. 27, 2010) I also recommend the docudrama, The Social Network , a story about the founding of Facebook.